08 Oct, 2009

Van Gogh’s secret letters laid bare

Posted by: admin In: Guardian

An exhibition of Vincent van Gogh’s personal letters and drawings demolishes long-held myths about his madness – and you can even read them on your iPhone

• In pictures: Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo

Across four floors of an Amsterdam museum, 2,164 pages of six magnificent books, a free iPhone app, and thousands of images on an astonishing website, the fruits are being harvested of 15 years’ work – a unique project honouring an artist who was an utter failure in life.

That artist, of course, was Vincent van Gogh, and, courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum, the world can now see for the first time every painting and every drawing that survives – and burrow ever deeper into how he made them. Director Axel Ruger calls Van Gogh “the James Dean of the 19th century”. The artist was 37 when he walked into the French fields he had been painting just the previous day, and shot himself in the chest. He had been painting in earnest for just 10 years.

“It is the romance of the unrealised promise,” says Ruger. “His story is so fantastic – it is one of the great what-ifs in art history: what would have happened if Vincent had lived.”

The exhibition, some sections of which will be loaned to London’s Royal Academy for a separate show in January, provides as many answers as it can, bringing together over 120 letters, the largest selection ever exhibited, and hundreds of related paintings and drawings. It is subtitled “the artist speaks”. But he doesn’t just speak; he enthrals. In the letters on show here he is often miserable, sick, hungover, scared, broke and sorry for himself. But he is more often gossipy, thoughtful, clever and hugely entertaining. He is never that wild man of Hollywood caricature, bellowing incoherently and hurling daubs of paint at the canvas.

The exhibitions also bring together letters where separate pages have ended up in different ownership, and unite vivid thumbnail sketches with preparatory drawings and the finished paintings. The originals are fragile, light-sensitive, and after the show is over will go back into their vault, to be shown only by appointment to scholars (only 36 letters will reach London).

But the Van Gogh Museum is also keen that the work should be made available permanently to a wider audience. To mark the exhibition’s opening, six volumes have been published simultaneously in Dutch, French and English, transcribing every one of 819 letters the artist wrote – mostly to Theo, his brother, best friend and the man who kept him financially afloat – and 83 written to him. Alongside Van Gogh’s own work, every print, painting or drawing he refers to, every artist he meets or mentions, every scrap of a book, poem or bible verse that he quoted (or misquoted), has been traced.

In one letter, from Arles in May 1888, Vincent muses quite cheerfully to Theo on alcohol and depression: “Take our sister Wil, she has neither drunk nor led a wild life, and yet we know a photograph of her in which she has the look of a madwoman.” And there on the page is the photograph of poor Wilhelmina – looking perhaps a bit anxious and strained, but surely not actually mad.

There is also a phenomenal website, launched last night, with a facsimile of every letter, which can tell you whether the paper is machine-woven or handmade, and whether it has a watermark. It all creates a slightly eerie feeling of looking over Van Gogh’s shoulder as he writes – knowing, as he did not, where the story would end.

The exhibition was officially opened by Queen Beatrix yesterday, but most of the gallery has been open all week: many people have come in the morning and stayed for an entire day. In a glass case on the first floor of the exhibition, there is a permanent queue to stare at one scruffy, creased sheet, with six enigmatic stains. The letter, the last the artist ever wrote, is one of the most famous in the history of art; every word has been pored over for evidence of Van Gogh’s state of mind. In the gallery, people peer intently into the dimly lit case. On the website, you can zoom right in, and still not answer the ghoulish and irresistible question: paint, ink – or blood?

That last missive began “thanks for your kind letter and for the 50-franc note it contained” – a phrase repeated so often that you wonder whether the curators thought of that as an alternative subtitle. It was never finished; it was found on his body on what Theo called “that horrible day” when he staggered back, mortally wounded, to the inn he had been staying in.

The penultimate letter Theo received, only a few days earlier, is also on display, one floor up. In it, Van Gogh is clearly not feeling great, but nonetheless includes lovely drawings of three pictures he is working on, and asks Theo to send more paints. “Here,” he writes, “one can’t find anything good in the way of colours.” It doesn’t read like the letter of a man who knows he will be dead before the week is out. The colours he wanted are not the ominous cobalts and chromes of the painting often – and wrongly – described as his last, but the calm tones of the oil sketch hanging a few feet away. It depicts a garden, described here as “green and pink grass, on the left a green and lilac bush and a stem of plants with whitish foliage. In the middle a bed of roses.”

There is no catalogue for the show. Instead, several sets of the six massive volumes – I carried one back from Amsterdam, and was glad my hand luggage wasn’t weighed – are laid out on tables on every floor in the exhibition. I watched one elderly couple, and a goth-ish teenager, sit side by side reading companionably for an hour.

The drawings for one of his earliest works, The Potato Eaters – a claustrophobic crowding of near-grotesque figures around a table – are on the ground floor. Upstairs there is the painting itself. Vincent’s letter to Theo explains that he was seeking “the colour of a good dusty potato, unpeeled of course”. Theo appealed to him to make the pictures just a little less muddy. Also included here is the devastating response to The Potato Eaters from the artist Anthon van Rappard: “You dare to invoke the names of Millet and Breton?” he demands. “Come on! Art is too important, it seems to me, to be treated so cavalierly.” Van Gogh, mortified, sent back the letter, and the friendship was broken.

When the museum’s staff started work on the project, they thought it might take five years to complete; in the end it took 15. The team were young art historians when they launched into it, middle-aged when they finished. One of the most difficult tasks proved to be tracking down every one of the ardently religious artist’s frequent, and sometimes inaccurate, references to the Bible. “We must have missed some,” one of the editors, Leo Jansen, says wearily, “but we really did our very best.”

For his part, although Axel Ruger takes a proper scholarly pride in the whole project, he seems secretly most chuffed with the iPhone app. He is constantly waylaying visitors to demonstrate its glories. “Anyone, anywhere in the world, can carry around a pocket full of these letters,” he says, grinning. “It’s just so cool.”

• Vincent van Gogh, the Letters is published in six volumes by Thames and Hudson. Price £325 until 31 December 2009, thereafter £395.

• The iPhone and iTouch application can be downloaded for free through the iTunes online store.

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